Language | BILINGUAL

Bras, bros and other borrowings into Japanese

by Roger Pulvers

Second Of Two Parts

There is a misunderstanding commonly voiced around the world that languages borrow words from other languages when they lack a native word for something in their own vocabulary. This is, actually, only one reason, and not the primary one, for the existence of direct loan words.

It is certainly true that English-speaking peoples may never have run into chandeliers, vodka, tacos or toupees had the words for them not slipped into their language. But can it really be argued that the Japanese would have had no supōtsu (スポーツ, sports), sekkusu (セックス, sex) or rōn (ローン, loan) if these words had not burrowed their way into their language? If you had to do without one of the above, which one would you choose? In these days of credit crunches, I think most of us would have to say the loan.

The major source for borrowings into Japanese has overwhelmingly been English. With the tech revolution of the past two decades has come a host of words such as konpyūtā (コンピューター, computer) and netto (ネット, the Net). For the previous generation, terebi (テレビ, television) was the equivalent loan word; for the generation before that, it was rajio (ラジオ, radio).

The fact is that hundreds of words in everyday use in Japan, some of them with perfectly good native equivalents, were originally introduced from English; no European language that I know of has so many direct loan words in daily use. You would have to look to languages in countries that were former British colonies for anything similar.

Examples of these everyday borrowings are: nyūsu (ニュース), dēto (デート), nōto (ノート), enjin (エンジン), ūru (ウール), karendā (カレンダー) and raisu (ライス). These are, in order: news, date (not the ones that grow on trees, at least not for us ordinary male mortals), notebook, engine, wool, calendar and rice. Why, you might ask, do the Japanese need an English word for the staple of their diet? Because the other word for cooked rice, gohan (ご飯), indicates rice served with Japanese food, while raisu is usually served with Western-style food or curried dishes.

The Japanese are no different from other nationalities in modifying the pronunciation and usage of borrowed words, making it difficult for native speakers to recognize the meaning of a word that originated in English.

When you first hear the word hōmu (ホーム) at the train station, you might be excused for not realizing that this word represents the second syllable in “platform.” I knew one American who huffed indignantly out of the station when a kindly Japanese railway employee told him to go to “platform five.” The American had entirely misunderstood the words go hōmu (5ホーム).

In another example, how many native speakers of English could guess the meaning of sebiro (背広), though this word for “men’s suit” comes from “civil clothes”? (Some attribute the origin to London’s “Savile Row” clothing district).Waishatsu (ワイシャツ, white shirt), panku (パンク, flat tire), nekku (ネック, a difficult situation, or bottleneck) and ēru (エール, a “yell” of support) are all hard to identify on first encounter.

It may be the quirky pronunciation or usage that distances the borrowing just that much from English to make it, in effect, almost a Japanese word. An example of the former is kanningu (カンニング), or cheating on an exam, from “cunning.” A word whose pronunciation extends beyond the cleavage of comprehension is burajā (ブラジャー), for “brassiere.” Years ago, a gentle old Japanese man put a hand on my shoulder and said, “We are all brassieres.” What he wanted to say was burazāzu, or brothers. In short, “We are all bros” came out as “We are all bras.”

Some loan words alter gender. So, kīman (キーマン, key man) is now in the process of becoming kīpāson (キーパーソン, or key person). But the Japanese still say kanojo wa kameraman (彼女はカメラマン, She is a cameraman).

And would Eric the Red feel at home in a Japanese hotel? Imagine him coming down to breakfast, depositing his ax by the umbrella stand, and seeing a sign reading Kyō wa baikingu! (今日はバイキング!). Literally this means “Today we are serving Vikings!” He couldn’t be blamed for retrieving his ax from the umbrella stand and threatening the hotel staff in defense of his people.

Eric, whose name came from the color of his hair, not that of his enemies’ blood, could have no way of knowing that baikingu is the Japanese word for . . . oh, what was the English word again? … yes, of course, it’s smorgasbord.

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